As MGM mulls its future, the show goes on

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If it were a movie, it might be called “Hollywood Parallel Universe.” This nail-biting thriller would center on a group of harried movie executives scrambling to push pictures out the door while their studio teeters on bankruptcy and is sold to the highest bidder.

The final chapter in Hollywood’s longest-playing corporate drama, the saga of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, could soon be written. Movie chief Mary Parent and her team are scrambling to finish and shape the marketing campaigns for what could be the last four movies from the independent studio to bear the famous roaring lion logo.

By the time the first of those films -- the R-rated comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine” -- hits theaters on March 26, MGM’s fate could be decided. Its owners hope to sell MGM by next month, likely capping the legacy of one of Hollywood’s oldest studios.

Against this backdrop, daily operations at the studio’s Century City offices continue with nearly 500 employees, whose jobs hang in the balance, spread across 10 floors of the MGM Tower. They’re trying not to get distracted by MGM’s turn of events.

“We’re just keeping our heads down and focusing on marketing our movies and getting them ready for release,” said Mike Vollman, head of marketing for MGM/United Artists.

Parent, a seasoned studio executive hired two years ago to reinvigorate MGM, is shepherding the only four movies she was able to greenlight before the money spigot for production was shut off.

In addition to helping Vollman and his small marketing staff to get word out on the upcoming release “Hot Tub Time Machine,” a $36-million raunchy comedy starring John Cusack, Parent is also working with filmmakers to finish three other movies: “Zookeeper,” a $75-million comedy starring Kevin James, and “Red Dawn,” a $45-million remake of the 1980s Cold War action flick, both set for release in the fall, and “Cabin in the Woods,” a $30-million comedic horror-thriller in 3-D due out in January.

MGM, which released only one movie last year -- the underperforming remake “Fame” -- is targeting “Hot Tub Time Machine” to the same young 18- to 34-year-old group of moviegoers that made other bawdy R-rated comedies such as “Role Models,” “Superbad” and “The Hangover” box office hits.

“Hot Tub” is about four best friends who spend a drunken night in a ski resort and are transported back in time -- in a hot tub -- to 1986. MGM has been aggressively promoting the film with hundreds of word-of-mouth screenings around the country, online with for-mature-audience-only “red-band” trailers and Web ads on YouTube and, along with costly TV spots during the Olympics coverage and on shows that include “The Office,” “Modern Family” and “Lost.”

“It’s a full-on campaign,” Vollman said. Based on the positive chatter the film is generating on social networks Twitter and Facebook and reviews on movie fan sites like Ain’t It Cool News, Vollman said, “It’s a check-your-brain-at the-door comedy and people are responding to it.”

The film’s director, Steve Pink, says the travails at MGM haven’t blocked efforts to market his movie.

“Everyone is really supportive and has been working to get the movie out there,” he said, noting that even when it came to asking for more money to cover essentials like visual effects and music rights, “they never cut me off financially.”

As Pink rushes to complete his final mix, the filmmakers behind “Zookeeper,” a co-production with Sony Pictures, are busy tinkering with complicated effects shots that make the animal characters talk. James plays a lonely zookeeper who considers leaving his job to chase an old flame who reappears in his life. When the animals -- voiced by actors Adam Sandler, Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Jon Favreau and writer-director Judd Apatow -- learn of his plans to leave, they break their silence to keep him at the zoo by teaching him mating rituals that can help him win the girl.

Todd Garner, one of the film’s producers, said he and the creative team are trying not to let MGM’s woes preoccupy them. “We’re not too distracted by all this, we have a lot to do,” Garner said. “We’ve shown Mary 40 or 45 minutes of the movie and she’s been happy.”

Parent, a former top executive at Universal Pictures, had originally planned to make a full slate of movies at MGM that would include big-budget sequels to James Bond, adaptations of “The Hobbit” and a spy thriller adapted from Robert Ludlum’s suspense novel “The Matarese Circle.” But, those plans were dashed when MGM ran into a financial wall shortly after her arrival.

While Parent has been splitting her time between making management presentations to prospective buyers as part of her corporate duties in addition to overseeing the movies, her colleague, company turnaround specialist Stephen Cooper, is working with investment bankers to conduct a second round of bidding for the studio.

A handful of suitors, including Time Warner Inc., Lions Gate Entertainment and billionaire industrialist Len Blavatnik are poring over MGM’s books before making binding bids, according to knowledgeable people.

Apart from an outright sale, there’s a chance MGM could remain independent if the company can restructure its $3.7-billion debt and secure new capital. But many expect the studio will be acquired by another media company and exist as a label for new productions of James Bond and other movie properties culled from its library.

Analysts say that in a worse case scenario, MGM would wind up filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and be sold off in pieces.